A central issue in motor control is how the central nervous system generates the muscle activity patterns necessary to achieve a variety of behavioral goals. The many degrees of freedom of the musculoskeletal apparatus provide great flexibility but make the control problem extremely complex. Muscle synergies - coherent activations, in space or time, of a group of muscles - have been proposed as building blocks that could simplify the construction of motor behaviors. To evaluate this hypothesis, we developed a new method to extract invariant spatiotemporal components from the simultaneous recordings of the activity of many muscles. We used this technique to analyze the muscle patterns of intact and unrestrained frogs during kicking, a natural defensive behavior. Here we show that combinations of three time-varying muscle synergies underlie the variety of muscle patterns required to kick in different directions, that the recruitment of these synergies is related to movement kinematics, and that there are similarities among the synergies extracted from different behaviors.
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